Wednesday, April 11, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Bungling works out

Arkansas’s long nightmare is over — well, it was 10 days! — and the Razorbacks have a head basketball coach. While the coaching record of John Pelphrey at South Alabama is not spectacular (80-67 in a weak conference of directional schools) he seems to have the exuberance and charisma to be an outstanding coach. And he did play for Kentucky.

So we can all resume our natural lives with bare optimism that the basketball program may return to the heights it achieved in the ‘90s when for a half-dozen years Arkansas had the most successful college basketball program in America. It went to the Final Four three times, won a national championship, played again in the title game and dominated the biggest and toughest conference in the country — all without extraordinary talent.

There is bound to be some disappointment among the shrillest Razorback fans because Athletic Director Frank Broyles did not land a big-name coach with a top-tier record, which he had told people was his objective when he fired the easygoing and likable Stan Heath. None of them was interested. The appearance of disarray in the whole athletic program, which had earned national attention, no doubt was a factor in Broyles’ futile search for a coach (the university then turned to a management search firm in Atlanta). It had been barely more than two months since the university’s board of trustees quietly decided 8 to 2 that Broyles had to leave but graciously let him announce it on his own terms.

The bungled coaching search and the ensuing jokes and despair left the venerable athletic director slightly more tarnished, his vast record of achievement just a little frayed. His and the head football coach’s sparring with a bunch of Springdale parents left him a lot of unstinting enemies in the quarter where he could least stand them, northwest Arkansas.

But a popular basketball coach will correct those feelings, and John Pelphrey seems apt to fill the bill. No, his record is not as stellar as the records of his three predecessors. Eddie Sutton was 82-50 in five seasons at Creighton, Nolan Richardson a spectacular 119-37 in five years at Tulsa (including five postseason tournament bids and an NIT championship) and Stan Heath 30-6 in one season at Kent State. Broyles’ problem was not that he could not land good coaches but that his personal relations with them, always cool, usually turned sour. Sutton, Lou Holtz, Ken Hatfield, Jack Crowe and Richardson all left deeply embittered. Richardson, prone to defensiveness anyway, completely lost his cool and handed the AD the weapon with which to fire him.

Broyles seems to have tried harder since he fired Richardson. The death of his wife may have left him a tenderer man. His firing of Heath was not handled well (the chancellor had assured the coach that he was staying) but it was at least gracious and it had seemed that way from the start.

Pelphrey will have a chance to show his stuff this winter with the most talented and experienced team in the Southeastern Conference. We have a hunch that he will fill the bleachers once again, and we can only hope that he finds the magic that Richardson displayed for a few glorious years. We will be luckier if the new AD has Frank Broyles’ shrewdness and management genius and some interpersonal skills, too.